Get our free newsletter
Washingtonians have a habit of fetishizing The Way Things Used To Be. But our romantic nostalgia tends to extend back only a generation or two, and overlooks the fact that the Washington on which we look back fondly was itself a radical departure from earlier times. Much of what seems to have been around forever is in fact relatively recent by historical standards. The neatly rectangular National Mall? A pretty new concept. The monolithic federal quarter of the Southwest District? It used to look rather different. The Georgetown waterfront that was recently converted from bleak industrial land to a tidy park? It once served a very different function.
Lost Washington, D.C., a new book out from D.C. building and neighborhood historian Paul Kelsey Williams that pairs photos of the bygone D.C. buildings and neighborhoods with the history behind them, is a great reminder that the glory days many proud native Washingtonians reminisce about were a far cry from the real ur-Washington.
Here are a few images of D.C. in various bygone eras:
The Washington City Canal opened in 1815 and ran along what’s now Constitution Avenue before meeting the Potomac River just south of the White House. (The western half of the Mall wouldn’t be filled in until much later.) But after railroads arrived, malarial mosquitos from the canal posed a major health threat, and the waters claimed the lives of hundreds of nonswimmers, the canal began to be covered over in 1871. (Photo from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)
Until the Potomac River and then the C&O Canal became silted up and difficult for large ships to navigate, Georgetown was a bustling port. It began to focus more on manufacturing after the Civil War, and ceased shipping activities by 1885. (Photo from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)
Beginning in the 1890s, Washingtonians—-well, white Washingtonians—-could escape the summer heat with a dip in the Tidal Basin. The Washington Bathing Beach, situated where the Jefferson Memorial now sits, was closed around 1925 after the water became polluted and was deemed unsafe for swimming. (Photo from Getty Images)
Before the Southwest quadrant was largely razed in the 1960s to make way for monolithic federal office buildings, it was a bustling residential neighborhood. But as it fell into a dilapidated state, Russian leaders actually used images like this one, showing crumbling houses in front of the Capitol, as anti-American propaganda. (Photo from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)
Behind the houses of Southwest were crowded alleys, whose poor state was used as an excuse to demolish the whole area. (Photo from Getty Images)
No, this isn’t Photoshopped: For the first half of the 20th century, there was a professional baseball stadium near the intersection of 7th and V streets NW. It began as an open park that was home to the Washington Nationals beginning in 1886, and to the American League Washington Senators starting in 1905. Former Chicago White Stockings star Clark Griffith built a partly covered stadium there in 1914, and it was named after him in 1924. At Griffith Stadium, the Senators beat the New York Giants to win the World Series in 1924. The stadium was also home to African American teams like the Washington Elite Giants, the Le Droit Tigers, and the Homestead Grays. It was razed in 1965. (Photo from Corbis)
The ring of parking garages surrounding downtown D.C. that was envisioned by planners never materialized, but the automobile era still reshaped the cityscape in favor of cars. This photo from 1941 shows a massive lot on prime downtown real estate. (Photo from Corbis)